A DANGEROUS BUSINESS combines a murder mystery and proto-feminist coming of age story set in 1850s California

A Dangerous Business

By Jane Smiley

Knopf: December 6, 2022

224 pages, $28.00

Jane Smiley has always been a restless writer. She’s written a Manhattan murder mystery (Duplicate Keys), a Norse saga (The Greenlanders), a family tragedy (A Thousand Acres, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize), an acerbic academic comedy (Moo), a tribute to the world of horse racing (Horse Heaven), two historical novels (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and Private Life), a dark suburban comedy (Good Faith), a trilogy following a family through the 20th century (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age), and a charming tale about a circle of anthropomorphic animal friends (Perestroika in Paris).

In A Dangerous Business, Smiley has combined a murder mystery and a historical novel about a young widow making her way in 1851 Monterey, California. Newly married Eliza Ripple moved west with her volatile husband, only to find herself on her own when he is shot in a bar fight. With few options, she moves into a boarding house and goes to work at Mrs. Parks’ brothel. She soon befriends a prostitute named Jean from a house that caters to women.

When a series of young women turn up dead in the back country near Monterey and law enforcement appears to be uninterested, Eliza and Jean find their curiosity getting the best of them. Inspired by Poe’s investigator Auguste Dupin, they begin their own investigation. With her newly analytical eye, Eliza finds some of her clients suspicious. Jean’s ability to impersonate a man comes in handy on several occasions. Her life becomes complicated as she works at night and plays detective during the day. Mrs. Parks tells Eliza, “Everyone knows that this is a dangerous business, but between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business.”

Through her friendship with Jean and her interactions with clients and other locals, Eliza slowly comes to know herself and what it means to be a relatively independent woman in the Gold Rush years. The serial killer mystery and coming of age elements merge nicely, with neither predominating. On one hand, that keeps A Dangerous Business from becoming a genre thriller or historical novel. On the other hand, it means the novel is neither fish nor fowl. The tension never builds as it could, and the character study is not quite as rich as in Smiley’s best work.

A Dangerous Business held my attention, but it wasn’t quite as compelling as I thought it would be. Eliza is always sympathetic, with her small-town perspective being broadened by her experiences, and her desire to live the life she wants. And Smiley gets the narrative voice just right for a story set in the mid-19th century. But the narrative maintains a slow and steady pace, only accelerating in the climactic scenes. And her friendship with a client-turned-friend who doesn’t fit the mold of typical Monterey men fades from the story toward the end.  

It’s a solid read, and a relatively short one (224 pages), so if you’re a fan of Smiley’s work or like the sound of a hybrid mystery-coming of age story, A Dangerous Business is worth investigating.

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